Do the gospel accounts contradict who went to Jesus’ grave?

by Rob Lundberg

Christian apologetics takes on many angles and many disciplines.  Many arenas include  engaging the philosophical ideologies like engaging different worldviews that are contra the Christian worldview.  Apologetics can even address the arena of the scientific to show how intelligent design tackles the objections coming from the various strains of neo Darwinism.

At the same time, there are times where a skeptic cherry picking the Bible or a Muslim seeking to debunk the Bible might throw down an objection seeking to point out a contradiction in the accounts between the gospels.  This angle of apologetics is known as biblical apologetics.

Over the next few posts, as we remember and rejoice in the  Resurrection of Jesus, I will be addressing some challenges that came our way a few years ago.[1]   These objections came from a reader, who challenged the accounts of what happened at that first Resurrection Sunday.

Some of these objections will be very easy to tackle while others will show themselves requiring a little bit of digging in order to solve the “puzzle.” However when all is said and done, we will find that there are no contradictions in the gospel accounts describing what happened that first resurrection morning.

Our approach will be simple. First I will set up summarize the objection (the problem). From there I will unpack it and in so doing, point out where the objection fails and why it fails.  The first objection has to do with the question of whether or not the gospel accounts contradict who went to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body.  

A Summary of the Objection. 

In Matthew’s gospel, it is recorded that two women went down to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” (Matt 28:1-8) Mark’s gospel states that three women go down to the tomb, “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. And they have spices. (See Mark 16:1-8).

Over in Luke’s gospel (24:1-12), we see that Luke records a group of women who go down to the tomb, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and they have spices. Joanna’s name is added to the list of women who went as well. Now the question:  Why does John tell us that Mary Magdalene shows up at the tomb alone (John 20:1-13)?  Is this a contradiction? Why didn’t the writers concur on who went to the tomb?

Our Response.

If you look at all the passages in harmony, there is really not a problem. First one needs to put into perspective what is all involved in understanding of biblical inspiration and textual transmission.

The first thing we need to remember is that four of the gospel writers are writing their gospels, which are what is known as an historical narratives.  They are also writing  under the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit with their personalities in tact.[2]

So what we do see is that the gospel writers recorded at least two of the women going to the tomb:

(1) Matthew: two women (the other Mary and Mary Magdalene);

(2) Mark: accounts for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (i.e., the other Mary and Salome);

(3) Luke tells us in 24:1, that “they came” to the tomb. But he doesn’t give us any more details as to who “they” are. This comes in verse 10, Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles.”

The common woman among all the gospels is Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that she is the lone woman in John’s gospel, all four gospel writers have her included as an eyewitness at the empty tomb. So even though John mentions her in his gospel, as the lone woman, this is really not an issue.


What do see in the gospel records is pretty clear. Mary the mother of James was at the tomb. And Luke gives us a clue that a group of women went to the tomb, Salome is mentioned as one of the women, as is Joanna.

Let us also not forget that the gospel writers were not stripped of their personalities, nor their liberties in recording for us what the Holy Spirit led them to pen down for us. When Peter tells us that the writers of Scripture “were moved by the Holy Spirit,” this does not mean that the Spirit was dragging their hands robotically so as to write what they wrote.

They were given the full liberty of their personalities in their writings. So if one writer records only part of the whole, it is not a problem.[3]

So when critics assume, be they Muslim or atheist, that the gospel writers were required to include the same list of the women, they are making a faulty demand.  Making an assumption like this, gives a picture of the critic thinking that they know better than the God they don’t believe in.  The gospel writers gave corroborative eyewitness testimony, which is something that modern day critics of Scripture seem to ignore or overlook.

So with reference to what women went to the tomb, there are no conflicts in the passages. So if you run into a question like this from a skeptic or a Muslim you are conversing with tries to hijack the gospels to make their point, remember that this is nothing more than cherry picking and pigeon holing one’s prejudice displaying a false sense of authority regarding the text.

[1] This post first appeared in my blogger several years ago, and needed a refreshing.  The objection is before us and being that we are coming up on remembering Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, I thought it would be good to resurrect this series and put it here on this blog.

[2] Many skeptics will try to point out that the gospel writers were nothing more than robots or taking a dictation that they may not have heard correctly. This is not how divine inspiration worked, though it is one of the challenges that we need to answer when it comes to the compilation of the New Testament.

[3] There are some recent sources on what is known as undesigned coincidences.  An undesigned coincidence (so-named by J.J. Blunt and first discovered by William Paley) occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information which is filled in, often quite incidentally, by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. As an argument for the historical veracity of the gospels, the case is at its strongest when taken as a cumulative whole: In other words, it’s death by a thousand mosquito bites.  If you would like to  see more on the subject of undesigned coincidences in the New Testament, let me recommend following this link.



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